You’ve likely read a lot about the financial benefits of solar panels on our website, but are solar panels worth it? Put simply, solar panels pay back by reducing electricity bills over the life of a solar panel system.
A solar panel system is a big investment. And like any investment, there will be an outlay and variables unique to your circumstances that will impact returns.
In this feature, we’ll explain why it could be worthwhile investing in solar panels. We’ll discuss the outlay, break-even figures and the all-important variables, so you can assess how solar panels can improve your financial bottom line.
Are solar panels worth it? The maths add up
Solar panels pay back in two main ways. Firstly, they reduce electricity bills because less power is drawn from the grid. Secondly, under the government-backed Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) system, money is earned for any unused solar electricity sent to the grid. Let’s use a common domestic example to see what this means in practical terms.
Let’s consider a popular 5kW system, a capped electricity rate of 34.04p per kWh (effective 1 October 2022–31 March 2023), and an SEG of 6.0p per annum. In this case, savings start at around £450. However, this assumes the house is empty during regular business hours. If you’re at home all day (now common with work from home) savings can increase to as much as £785 or more. This is because you’re using electricity when your panels are operating at peak. More on that later.
According to British Gas, a high-power-usage, five-bedroom house with four to five occupants uses (on average) 4,300kWh of electricity per annum at a cost of £1,632.79. With the installation of a 5kW solar panel system, their bill is reduced to £1,182.79 if the house is empty during the day. If working from home, the electricity bill is reduced to £847.79. In the best case scenario, that’s an impressive saving of 52%. Over the 25-year life of the panels, you could save as much as £19,625 – a compelling figure in anybody’s language.
However, it’s yet to include the initial outlay for the solar panel system and any ongoing costs. How long will it take to break even if you purchase a standard 5kW system? Read on to find out.
Breaking even on a solar panel investment
The break-even point of the investment is when the returns have paid for the initial outlay. This is a significant milestone for solar consumers, as from this point on investment returns increase.
Using the minimum savings (£450) example above, we can determine the nominal break-even point. A standard 5kW solar system costs around £6,000. Dividing the outlay by the savings, breakeven is achieved in 13.3 years. From this point on, you’re profiting. And by the end of the system’s 25-year working life, electricity savings total £5,265. This outcome alone confirms that solar panels are worth it.
As a solar speculator, these figures, while showing a worthy financial gain, might seem a little underwhelming to some. You’ve likely heard of a ‘payback period’ or ‘break-even period’ as little as four or 10 years, with net returns breaching the £10,000 mark – it is achievable. With the best case example above, breakeven is only 6.8 years, with a 25-year profit of £14,287. However, you may also have heard of longer breakeven periods of 16 to 20+ years, with positive, yet negligible gains.
Thus, a variety of variables – some within your control, others out of it – impact your potential returns, which are determined by your unique circumstances. Let’s take a closer look at the variables to get a better understanding of how they can help or hinder investment returns.
Understanding solar power variables
As mentioned above, a variety of factors will impact how quickly you can make back your initial investment on solar panels. We discuss these below.
The panels you choose
Like any consumer item, there can be significant differences in prices for solar systems. This is due mostly to variations in panel quality and performance: is it a standard system, or is it high performance? Or to put it in vehicle terms, is it a Toyota or a Ferrari?
In our 5kW example above, the outlay was £6,000. You could pay as much as £9,000 or more for a 5kW system. Determining whether to go Toyota or Ferrari comes down to several factors:
- A standard system may fit your budget and could be all that’s needed for maximum return.
- A high-performance system may deliver such a high output that it cancels out the price difference between standard and high-performance and reduces the break-even milestone.
- A high-performance system may last as long as 30 years, extending the investment return period by five years.
- Your house location, design and/or another aspect may not suit a standard system. High-performance panels might therefore be required to make any financial return viable.
By and large, solar panel systems are priced and advertised with installation included. However, solar professionals will survey your home to assess any complications such as property access or complex roof structures or slopes. In these cases, an extra installation charge is likely. You should therefore factor any additional installation costs into your projected returns.
If you purchase your solar system online, it can be considerably cheaper, but that’s usually because it will be up to you to organise and pay for installation. For a 5kW system, you should budget for a minimum of £1,000.
The weather is out of our control – as much as we’d like to, we can’t command the sun. However, the amount of sun solar panels receive is critical to solar returns.
A 5kW system generates around 20kW per day in ideal sunny conditions. Annually, that’s a fantastic output of 7,300kW – perfect for the home used in our example. Unfortunately, though, conditions aren’t always ideal, and a more realistic yearly output is closer to 4,500kWh. While this covers the needs of the home in our example, there’s not a great balance of electricity remaining to take advantage of SEG income.
In that regard, we become very much like crop farmers. We speculate on the weather in order to predict our investment returns – and the weather can be difficult to pin down.
Your home and its location
The further south your home is located, the more sunshine it will receive. For example, the South West will receive, on average, around 300 hours’ more sunshine than northern Scotland annually, according to the Met Office.
Additionally, solar panels are most efficient when installed on a roof with a southern aspect at an angle of 35 degrees. Consequently, solar panels on a south-facing house in Ipswich with a pitched roof will have a greater return on investment than on a home in Inverness with a western aspect and a flat roof.
Most importantly, a roof requires space to install solar panels. For a 5kW system, you’ll need 15–20 panels, requiring a roof area of 25–35m².
There is, however, some wiggle room for insightful solar professionals to overcome circumstances that aren’t ideal. For example, custom panel mounting or ground-mounting can improve efficiencies and, therefore, your returns.
Often, the installation of high-performance panels can compensate for situations like low sunlight or overshadowing by trees and other buildings.
It’s almost certain, however, that when mounting alternatives, high-performance panels and extra parts are required, the outlay will increase –eating into potential savings.
Government grants for solar panels
Government-backed solar incentives have been reduced in recent years, and most have now ended. However, you can still avail of 0% VAT on your solar panels, as well as the SEG system. While the latter is a government initiative, it is nevertheless regulated entirely by the electricity market – which means each SEG Licensee (the supplier paying for the electricity generated) sets its own rates, and it’s worth shopping around.
The EOC4 initiative is also still available, providing eligible low-income households and those in receipt of state benefits with incentives that may make solar investments more profitable. For example, the scheme’s home insulation grants can be used to make homes more energy-efficient. This way, even smaller solar panel systems may become viable and deliver better returns.
Variations in the SEG rate
It’s important to note that the SEG is only available to those with systems of 5kW or smaller. The rate per kWh earned from the SEG will vary depending on the electricity retailer and whether or not you are a customer of that retailer. Here is an example to illustrate. EDF pays a very low 1.5p per kWh for non customers, whereas Octopus pays 15p per kWh to its customers. Clearly, this is a big difference that will have quite an impact on solar panel returns.
Fortunately, we get to choose our electricity retailer, adding a level of control over the returns. There’s an added level of flexibility as consumers can choose variable or fixed SEG rates. Fixed rates offer a bit more security: you’re protected if market conditions worsen. But at the same time, you won’t benefit from better conditions, either. With a variable rate, you run the risk of your rates decreasing over time – but they may also increase if market conditions improve. The choice is much the same as deciding between a fixed or variable mortgage, and the more you know about the market, the more confident you can be in your choice.
Adding a solar battery
According to the Energy Saving Trust, a typical household will use about 15-25% of the electricity solar panels generate. The other half is fed to the grid. With a solar battery installed, the unused electricity charges the battery, which is used when the panels are dormant. Yes, you will lose a portion of the SEG income but using the electricity you generate is far more cost-effective than selling to the grid.
Mains electricity costs on average 34p/kWh. The best fixed SEG price available is only 15p/kWh. Using the stored electricity instead of sending it to the grid is better by 19p/kW hour. That’s a huge saving, but there’s a catch – and it’s big.
A 5kW system requires a minimum 10kW battery. Costs for a 13.5kW Tesla Powerwall 2 start at £9,400 and has a 10-year warranty. Once the warranty period is over, the battery will likely start losing its charging capacity.
This is already a large outlay, and an additional problem is that the battery will not last for the life of the solar panels. It will need to be replaced at least once to have battery power for the life of the 5kW system.
Now the costs include two batteries and £6,000 of panels for a grand total of £24,800. That’s a big hit to your investment and you’re yet to include battery installation costs.
It’s important to note that prices for batteries suitable for a 5kW solar panel system will vary significantly. They start at around £4,500, exceeding £10,000 for larger, and premium models. Like any consumer product, it pays to shop around.
Adapting household routines
The bottom line is the less mains power you use, the better. There are a number of ways you can adapt your household routines on this basis. For example, you could use power-intensive appliances, such as your washing machine, dishwasher and clothes drier, during the day while your panels are operating at peak capacity.
Regardless of whether you have solar panels, solar panels plus battery, or no solar panel system at all, saving electricity is much easier than you think. The less electricity you use overall, the greater the return on your solar investment.
The environmental benefit of solar panels
We’ve so far outlined the financial benefit of using solar panels to lower your energy bills, but there is a more obvious upside to solar power that benefits the world outside of your home: reduced household emissions. It’s a sad reality, but the majority of the UK’s electricity supply is still powered by damaging fossil fuels. While steps are being taken by the Government to switch to renewable energy sources and become less dependent on gas, there is still quite a lot of work to do on that front. This makes it all the more important for individual households to do what they can to reduce carbon emissions, and solar panels are one of the many home improvements that have a net positive environmental impact.
While the production of solar panels does produce some carbon emissions, overall their impact is less harmful than fossil fuels. According to SolarPower Europe, energy produced by solar panels is 96% less carbon intensive than coal and 93% less intensive than gas. In a solar panel’s lifetime, it will generate 30 times more electricity than is needed to manufacture it. As global governments race to combat the climate emergency, these figures show why so much attention is being placed on solar power.
The good news is that many of the components of solar panels can be recycled at the end of their life cycle – in fact, the practice is mandatory in the UK due to the hazardous nature of some of the materials used to produce them.
As you can see from our guide, there are many factors that will impact how quickly solar panels pay for themselves, but the bottom line is that solar panels are worth the investment for a number of reasons. They can save households hundreds – and possibly thousands – of pounds on their energy bills every year and are a great way to reduce your carbon footprint.